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White Roses and the White Rose: using the techniques of democracy to protest injustice

We have learned that the prisoners in Russia who receive letters are treated better than the others, because the guards know that the world’s eyes are on them.

Leaflets with a portrait of Sophie Scholl set in the pavement at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
Leaflets with a portrait of Sophie Scholl set in the pavement at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
imago/Ralph Peters

Sophie Scholl was beheaded by guillotine on Feb. 23, 1943. She was 21 years old. Her crime? She was a member of the White Rose, a nonviolent resistance group of college students, and she was caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at the University of Munich in Germany, an act the Nazis labeled high treason.

Her brother and a fellow student were executed with her.

On Oct. 26, 2023, people gathered at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul to write letters to people incarcerated in Russia for protesting Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. The letter-writers ranged in age from 10 to 80 years old, and they came from many different places and backgrounds. They had one thing in common: They wanted to stand up with the prisoners and let them know they weren’t alone.

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This was our fourth letter-writing event. The first two were at The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, which has also hosted powerful art exhibits such as “Ukraine Defiant” and ongoing displays of political cartoons depicting opposition to the war. The third event was at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.

Together, World Without Genocide, the museum, and Russians Against War-Minnesota are supporting these brave people in Russia who have been imprisoned for resisting an unjust war — like Sophie Scholl and her colleagues. Today’s prisoners in Russia perhaps attended a peaceful anti-war demonstration, wrote something unfavorable about the war on social media, or spoke against Putin — and were arrested.

They are heroes for using the principles and techniques of democracy to protest injustice: freedom of speech, the right to assemble safely, and the right for the independent, sovereign and democratic nation of Ukraine to continue to exist.

The letters get translated into Russian and then are sent via email to the prisoners, going through strict censor review first. Prisoners write back — and they write with great gratitude for not being invisible and forgotten.

We have learned that the prisoners who receive letters are treated better than the others, because the guards know that the world’s eyes are on them.

At that last letter-writing event, Mount Zion’s senior rabbi, Adam Stock Spilker, joined us. He was carrying a huge vase of beautiful white roses sent from the Philos Action League after the war began in Gaza. He showed me the note that came with the roses.

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The note began, “Due to the situation unfolding in Israel, the Philos Action League wanted to reach out and share our support. We stand in solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people during this difficult time and always. The Philos Action League is committed to showing up physically, in solidarity and friendship, for our Jewish friends and neighbors, when any form of antisemitism occurs.”

Rabbi Spilker asked me, “Do you know about the White Rose?”

I was filled with emotion. I have been to the University of Munich, and I have stood where Sophie Scholl bravely flung out her last leaflets. I have knelt on the brass memorial plaque on the plaza in front of the hall where the janitor witnessed her actions and reported her to the Gestapo. I have read books and watched movies about her life and her remarkable bravery as she went to her death speaking words of courage and resistance.

Ellen J. Kennedy
Ellen J. Kennedy
We will honor Sophie Scholl and other Germans who saved Jews during the Holocaust on Thursday, Nov. 9, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and online, “Germany after the Holocaust: From Kristallnacht to Other Genocides.” Registration is required by 6 p.m. CT at

We will hold a fifth letter-writing event to political prisoners in Russia, “Standing Up against Injustice,” at the Minnesota State Capitol on Saturday, Dec. 16, from 1 to 3 p.m. in Room 316. The event is free, open to the public, no registration is necessary, and Russian language skills are not needed.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, St. Paul, where she is also an adjunct professor.